Call of Duty 2 (Xbox 360) review
"Until now, games based on World War Two have dodged a moral bullet thanks to the various limitations of the hardware supporting them. Arguments regarding the representation of mankind's darkest hour as a form of entertainment have covered everything from simple bad taste, to the trivialization of our greatest tragedy, yet the nay-sayers it seems, have been missing the point."
War is hell, but Infinity Ward have made it beautiful. For every horror story your Grandfather has ever told you, Call of Duty 2 provides the perfect counter slice of escapist entertainment. Sold as a realistic portrayal of World War Two, yet played as an arcade inspired, first person shooter, its careful blend of History Channel authenticity and pure, Nazi killing thrills has killer-app written all over it. You'll come for the lush visuals, and stay for the last days of the Third Reich in a single player campaign that spans the lives of three soldiers, and three vastly different theaters of war. From Hitler's first moves on Stalingrad in 1942, to an American push across the Rhine, Call of Duty 2's defining constant is a single, breathtaking rush from beginning to end, and a huge pang of guilt once your Grandfather finds out.
"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'." Winston Churchill - June 1940
Until now, games based on World War Two have dodged a moral bullet thanks to the various limitations of the hardware supporting them. Arguments regarding the representation of mankind's darkest hour as a form of entertainment have covered everything from simple bad taste, to the trivialization of our greatest tragedy, yet the nay-sayers it seems, have been missing the point. What we've experienced thus far has as much to do WW2 as Halo did with reality, and in that, we find a moral high-ground from which to defend a burgeoning genre. After all, outside of the theme itself, the poorly defined battlefields and pop out enemies are a pale imitation of the real thing, and simply represent a modern variation of children playing Cowboys and Indians.
Realism though, is something game developers continually strive for, and with this latest generation of hardware, we've reached a point where questions have to be asked. Does a high level of visual polish mean such games are glamorizing the tragedies of history? And if so, does that make our enjoyment of them an insult to those who died? Now I'm hardly an academic, and my idea of philosophy stops with the glass being half full. What I can tell you however, is there are times when Call of Duty 2 becomes so entertaining that your only response will be an overwhelming sense of guilt. Watching a hundred Soviet soldiers charge across the icey fields of Stalingrad looks spectacular, but when the machine guns open fire, the realization this actually happened hits hard. And with that, the very nature of their sacrifice becomes apparent.
It's a testament to the power of the Xbox 360 then, that such eye-opening events can be rendered with devastating clarity. Bodies recoil under impact from heavy fire, shaking left and right before falling to the ground in a grizzled heap. Smoke grenades then douse the screen in a thick haze as cannon shells roar in from above, pot marking the ground upon impact and vaporizing anyone, and indeed, anything caught nearby. Furthermore, those with a full Dolby 5.1 Surround set up will be in for a treat as Call of Duty 2 spreads its soundscape evenly across the channels, producing what can only be described as a rhapsodic, Hell on Earth.
And yet for Call of Duty 2 to fully capitalize on this immersion, the AI needed to behave in a consistently believable fashion. Thankfully then, short of wandering the battlefield in search of missing limbs, your comrades react instinctively to almost anything the game throws their way. Be it an enemy hand grenade (which are occasionally returned to sender), a blind corner (wary soldiers will hug the wall in order to grab a peek of what's in wait), or the sudden shock of a mortar attack (take cover!!!), their bravery is oddly infectious and will spur players on through even the darkest of moments.
With this focus on realism quickly solidifying, it's disappointing to note how Infinity Ward have crippled the atmosphere by adding several obvious, arcade-like elements. Much like Halo did before it, Call of Duty 2 has endowed players with a personal shield that protects them from danger, and recharges when not in use. For the game's target audience - armchair marines with a limited attention span - the system works incredibly well by keeping the action running at a constant and furious pace. Unfortunately however, this also has the side-effect of allowing players to approach each situation with increased gusto, usually ending with acts of incredible heroism (read: stupidity). You'll take more chances, push harder, and invariably rush through the game without soaking up its real, hardwire atmosphere. And that's going to be a terrible shame...
But what if you could change all that? What if Call of Duty 2 was a one hit nightmare, populated by eagle-eyed German snipers capable of hitting a nickel shaped target on your forehead from 300 yards. Would that be more to your liking? Bump the difficulty level up a notch, and Call of Duty 2's lowest common denominator becomes meaningless as players are given a baptism of fire they won't soon forget. German infantry will move smarter, think faster, and often flank your position in search of a tactical advantage. Every hard earned meter you win back from the enemy then feels like a victory, and where the easier skill settings cheapen the game, this increased challenge at least stays true to the spirit of sacrifice.
The authenticity however, doesn't stop there, and Infinity Ward have furnished Call of Duty 2 with a wide range of weapons, each deliciously animated and packing just the right amount of forced recoil. Indeed, holding a trench mounted MG-42 heavy machine gun as it unleashes 1200 rounds per minute makes for an awesome rush, only bettered by the satisfying thump of hitting an enemy soldier across the back of the head. Likewise, the controls have met similar high standards, and mimic a basic Halo configuration while adapting well to the Xbox 360's redesigned pad. The presence of matching L and R buttons next to the triggers has made grenade access a breeze, and being able to pop smoke in a moment's notice will invariably save your life more often than not.
Still, the nay-sayers will persist in their belief that a game based on World War Two isn't the best way to remember what happened. So let's change gears for a moment, and examine Call of Duty 2 from a new angle: education. Spread across three distinct theaters of war, the varied single player missions encompass everything from the Soviet front, to Northern Africa, and a devastating final push into Germany itself. There's an awesome amount of historical fact to work through, and its detailed presentation may compel some players to indulge in a bit of extra-curricular reading. From personal experience, I can tell you that everything I know about the African conflict has come from this game, and in no small way should an achievement like that be under-rated.
So if Infinity Ward can combine education and entertainment to great effect, adding a thorough compliment of online, multiplayer modes should be no problems at all, right? Wrong. While there's no denying the title's many successes, Call of Duty 2 sadly takes a bullet where most first person shooters have legs. It's got the basic online play modes covered with the usual deathmatch/capture the flag variants, but outside of the obvious choices, there isn't much you haven't seen before. That being said however, what's on offer has been polished until it positively shines, and easily ranks as some of the most exciting Xbox Live action the 360 has to offer. From the way burnt out houses give snipers a place to nest, to the many obstacles that litter each stage, and the natural defensive positions they provide, the scope for simple, multiplayer chaos seems endless. Even if it's no longer educational...
Of all the launch titles, Call of Duty 2 stands as being the most memorable. If a game can be rated by the number of moments it carries, then Infinity Ward's next-gen debut would be a sure fire classic. Even genre staples such as the D-Day landing at Normandy continue to surprise, thanks mostly to some creative development and a fresh new perspective. Be it the awesome visuals, inspired gameplay, or simply a desire to learn something new about history, this Xbox 360 launch title has what it takes to impress. It treats its subject with enough respect to win over all but the most ardent of nay-sayers, and there's no greater recommendation than that. Authentic, realistic, atmospheric, and most of all, immersive. Call of Duty 2 is the reason you bought an Xbox 360...
"I hate nobody except Hitler - and that is professional. " Winston Churchill to John Colville during WW2
* Easily one of the most atmospheric WW2 shooters around
* Smooth, responsive controls
* Long single player campaign
* Huge range of weapons
* 3 different theaters of war
* System link/Co-op play round out the multiplayer options
* Visually, Call of Duty 2 is without equal in the genre
* Slowdown free!
* The rich, varied soundscape is a full 5.1 workout
* Call of Duty 2 can be too arcade-y for its own good
* Limited multiplayer modes
Staff review by Michael Scott (February 13, 2006)
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